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Russian protests offer unusual challenge to political order

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MOSCOW — An extraordinary political refashioning is underway here as protesters galvanized by widely reported electoral fraud are demanding that their government obey the law.

What began in the minds of individual Russians is now playing out on public squares where crowds of protesters have confronted swarms of police.

Since Sunday’s elections, won by the ruling United Russia party with a reported total of just under 50 percent of the vote, a sense of disgust that had been gathering weight has found a public voice.

Unsanctioned — illegal — protests have broken out in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don and elsewhere of a size rarely seen in Vladi­mir Putin’s dozen years in power.

Closing public squares

On Wednesday police sealed off Triumfalnaya Square, the scene of past protests. A radical party called the Other Russia said 70 members were detained on the way to the square in the evening.

The New Times magazine reported that the city was closing Revolution Square for reconstruction; that was to be the site of a major rally Saturday, and 20,000 people have signed up on Facebook promising to attend. The city later suggested that the work would be done by Saturday after news of the closure lit up the Twittersphere.

It could run out of steam. A few million voters turned against United Russia at the polls Sunday, and a few thousand, in a capital city of 13 million, have taken to the streets to protest an election deemed neither free nor fair. The vast majority of Russians are home in front of their big-screen TVs, seeing almost nothing of this activity because television news isn’t reporting it.

In January 2010, protests in Kaliningrad brought 12,000 to the streets to demonstrate against authoritarianism and economic policies, and government opponents hoped the discontent would fill streets across the nation. The movement slowly died.

Yet the events of this week have brought into the open a debate – on the Internet, in the newspapers and in countless apartments – that Russians hadn’t known they could have. Something has broken.

On Monday, 5,000 demonstrators took to the streets, and police detained 300. On Tuesday, United Russia brought in busloads of young supporters, with police escorts, and 600 protesters were detained.

Rising discontent

Before Sunday, Russians were voicing increasing discontent with the perceived fix in the upcoming election. And now, quite suddenly, the public protests have upended the settled political expectations of the past decade.

“You told them that you exist,” anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny shouted Monday night before he was arrested. The crowd cheered. “They can hear that, and they are afraid.”

This is nothing like the last days of the Soviet Union, when hundreds of thousands marched for democracy and desperate coal miners went on strike.

“They were strong because the country needed their coal,” said Dmitri Gornostayev, a 23-year-old engineer, “and they lived like beggars. So they were willing to fight, and the authorities had to listen.”

Today, the standard of living in Russia is higher than it has ever been. Russians are free to travel abroad on vacation. Russians, as disgruntled as many are, are free to say what they want among themselves.

The participants aren’t plotting a revolution, and they’re not the 99 percent. But there are enough of them to get attention.

“Nobody wants to be cheated. It is so depressing,” Moscow architect Peter Vois wrote on his blog. “So what can you do if it has happened? Put up with this? You can of course. But you still want to know where and how you were cheated, just for the future.”

Since the election results were announced, United Russia has revealed itself in another way. President Dmitry Medvedev met with party leaders on Tuesday, and later it was reported that the topic of conversation was the purging of those regional officials who didn’t meet the electoral goals set for them. The issue was not the party’s dwindling popularity but the failure to muster sufficient government resources to attain, by any means, a 60 percent vote for United Russia.

‘Many have exit strategies’

Matthew Rojansky, an official of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, was in Moscow during Sunday’s election, and he said more people were talking about their dissatisfaction with United Russia instead of cutting off political discussions with a what’s-the-point shrug.

“But many have exit strategies,” he said, “so they are not willing to go to an illegal protest and risk arrest.”

Rojansky is skeptical about what the protests could accomplish. He doesn’t discern fundamental change but a process that could eventually lead to change.

“There’s no alternative path available to opposition politicians to gain power,” he said.

As he consolidated his power in the early 2000s, Putin made a deal with Russians: accept that he was leading them out of lawlessness and chaos, and leave the dirty business of politics to him. And for 12 years, it worked.

As president and then prime minister, Putin counted on their silent consent. Now, as he prepares to take back the presidency, they are speaking up. But no one knows where this leads.

Gornostayev said two friends were arrested in a protest in St. Petersburg and charged with extremism. Their families were frightened. He did not think others would easily join them. And where could politicians lead those who are emboldened to demonstrate, he asked, when the authorities have limited and controlled the parties on the ballot?

“As long as there is no choice,” he said, “the rallies won’t go anywhere.”

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